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Race Factor in Death Sentences

North Carolina can lead the way in concern over whether the color of a person's skin could have contributed to their being considered for a death sentence; it need only have the will.
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The release last week of a study conducted by two law professors at Michigan State University College of Law has reignited the debate over the question of what role race plays in North Carolina when defendants are facing a death sentence. After examining 5,800 cases in North Carolina that were eligible for the death penalty from 1990 through 2009, the study concluded that a defendant in North Carolina is 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims is white. Moreover, the study found that more than 40 percent of defendants on North Carolina's death row were sentenced to death by a jury that was either all-white or included only one person of color. It was also determined by researchers that, during the jury selection process, prosecutors statewide struck qualified blacks from the potential jury pool at more than twice the rate of whites.

Five death row inmates in North Carolina are challenging their sentences based largely on these findings.

The study underscores the importance of the one-year old N.C. Racial Justice Act which allows inmates the chance to challenge their death sentences if they believe race was a factor in their sentencing. This ground-breaking legislation was adopted to counteract the racial disparities in death sentencing which have been observed by capital defenders and death penalty litigation organizations for decades. While critics may try to argue that the study ignores such factors as the specific circumstances of the crime and a defendant's criminal record, it is undeniable that prosecutors in the Murrell case in Forsyth County eliminated 80 percent of qualified black jurors and only 26 percent of the of qualified white jurors. A similar study conducted by a professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder last month concluded that someone accused of killing a white person in North Carolina was nearly three times as likely to get the death penalty as someone accused of killing a black person.

While the impact of these studies on the death row inmates' cases still remains to be seen, the conclusions reached by the researchers raises serious concerns about how we consciously or unconsciously view an individual's race in determining whether they should be given the most serious penalty our criminal justice system has to offer. If we have any doubts about whether race played a role in the practices of a prosecutor or in the determination of a jury, then it should be axiomatic that the sentence of death should be commuted to life. A racially conscious society must refuse to submit to the rhetoric of "punishment must fit the crime" and seek a higher moral ground that says a potentially racially-biased death sentence is intolerable in North Carolina.

The real issue going forward is whether North Carolina is willing to be a trailblazer in setting the example for other states who have equal concerns over whether the color of a person's skin could have contributed to their being considered for death or was a factor in their receiving a death sentence; it is our choice to make.